India travel bristles with an air of the exotic, thanks to the billion people of varying ethnic groups who create an intoxicating cultural cocktail.
India's in-your-face diversity can be found among snow-capped mountains and sun-kissed beaches, tranquil temples and dusty villages. From grand vestiges of the Raj in New Delhi to the rich cultural heritage of the former maharajas in royal Rajasthan, India bustles, shuffles and delights.
The Golden Triangle is India's most popular tourist circuit and a perfect introduction to the country, while India's south abounds with beautiful landscapes, colonial architecture, lush jungles, ruined forts, centuries-old churches and lavish basilica.
For the spiritual seeker Tamil Nadu is India's temple heartland, while Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world and certainly India's holiest.
When to go
Broadly speaking, India is defined by three seasons, the hot, the wet and the cool. The coolest and most pleasant time to visit is after the monsoon is over, from October to March. That said, Rajasthan, which stays largely dry in the monsoon (loosely May to September) is worth considering in the off-season as hotels are better value and attractions are quieter. And bear in mind the monsoon moves across the country, breaking in Kerala in May and then moving northeast across the country, so it should be possible to plan your trip to avoid it - or like author Alexander Frater, who wrote the wonderful Chasing The Monsoon, to follow it. There are many regional variations, and weather patterns have become less predictable in recent years.
Capital Capital - New Delhi
Size - 3, 287, 590 sq km
Language - The official language is Hindi but there are over a dozen other official languages, including Punjabi, Bengali and Urdu. English is the language of business and spoken widely.
Population - 1.22 billion people - and growing fast. It is estimated that there are about 50 births in India in a minute.
Religion - predominantly Hindu (over 80 per cent), although India is also home to the second largest Muslim population in the world. There are also Sikh, Christian and Buddhist minorities.
Currency - Indian Rupee (rs) = 100 paise
Time zone - GMT +5.5 hours
Flight time - Approximately 8 hours 30 minutes to New Delhi.
Among the many highlights is Holi, the Festival of Colours, in March. It's great fun, with people throwing coloured powder and water at each other, although it can get rather rowdy. Wear old clothes, and sunglasses to protect the eyes if you want to join in the fun of this spring festival. Be aware that the consumption of bhang (cannabis) laced drink and food is a wide-spread part of proceedings and has certainly added to the reputation of this festival as an intoxicating one.
Diwali, which usually falls between mid-October and mid-November, is celebrated with particular enthusiasm in northern India, with fireworks being lit, together with candles and oil lamps, making this five-day festival a beautifully atmospheric one.
The colourful Camel Fair in Pushkar is also held in October or November, bringing traders, farmers, villagers and livestock together from all over Rajasthan.
All visitors to India from the UK must obtain a visa prior to arrival. The Indian High Commission out sources its visa process to VFS Global, to whom applications should be made. More information can be found on their respective websites: www.hcilondon.net or http://in.vfsglobal.co.uk
Note that your passport must be valid for 190 days from the date the visa is issued and have two completely blank pages spare. Additional conditions may apply to non-UK passport holders.
Passports need to be valid for six months from the date you are due to leave India.
Rupees are divided into 100 paise. Coins are minted in denominations of 50 paise, RS 1, Rs 2, and Rs 5; while notes are printed in denominations of Rs 10, 20, 50, 100, 500 and 1000. It can be difficult to use worn notes, so refuse any damaged notes when you are given them.
It is not possible to purchase Rupees before arriving in India. Try ATMs at the airport if available if you need cash on arrival, or the airport bank, although rates at the latter are not favourable. In cities, the State Bank of India and several others are authorized to deal in foreign exchange and offer better rates of exchange than large hotels, though these do offer a 24-hour service.
ATMs are available all over India, with Cirrus, Maestro as well as Visa and MasterCard generally accepted. Withdrawal fees are often charged, and sometimes fraud prevention measures result in travellers having their cards blocked when unexpected overseas transactions occur, so advise your bank before travelling. Credit cards and Traveller's Cheques by reputable companies are widely accepted.